Terry McLaughlin: Living Room Conversations Offer Respectful Discourse

by Terri McLaughlin. reposted from The Union.

With the explicit goal of improving the level of social discourse over public policy issues, Joan Blades of Berkeley, a political activist and former divorce mediator, devised the idea of intimate small group discussions which, in 2011, evolved into “Living Room Conversations.”

In 2013, she invited Mark Meckler, a co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, to a conversation in her home. The two diverse personalities found common ground on the need for criminal justice reform, which led to impactful collaborative action, and the concept of Living Room Conversations took off.

That successful collaboration occurred before Bernie Sanders became the standard bearer for the progressive movement, and Donald Trump was elected President in a contentious and nasty election. Today, merely showing up to a discussion or stating an opinion or point of view in the public arena can seem hazardous, as we appear to be arguing about every aspect of our government and culture. Rather than attempting to change minds, the theory behind Living Room Conversations was that if folks with multiple perspectives could create a vehicle for a respectful, courteous, and meaningful exchange of ideas, then more positive relationships could develop and perhaps some common ground could be found.

It is perfectly natural to be drawn to the familiarity and comfort of being with those with whom we share a similar outlook. But don’t we all have family or friends we hold dear, but with whom we disagree on almost everything? In today’s world of faceless social media, email, posts and tweets, could we possibly expand the tolerance and suspension of judgment we afford our family by meeting others with whom we disagree face to face?

In an attempt to find out, I recently took the opportunity to participate in a Living Room Conversation with one of the co-founders of the local Indivisible group, and five other women with very diverse points of view. After attending the recent LaMalfa town hall at the Nevada County Fairgrounds and witnessing the overwhelming disrespect displayed by many in the room to Congressman LaMalfa and any who dared to support him — even during the invocation and Pledge of Allegiance — I wasn’t sure that in today’s environment there could be a courteous dialogue between those who identify themselves with differing governing philosophies.

Could we share opposing outlooks without belittling each other? Could we hear uncomfortable truths and own the paradox they might create in our own world view? Could we accept, as one of my friends said, that “none of us have horns coming out of our heads?”

I found that the answer to those questions, on a personal level, was yes, we can.

Living Room Conversations has a very specific set of ground rules and is more of a listening vehicle than a format for discussion. Most of the women in the group in which I participated were dipping their toes into this pool for the first time, yet all were respectful, honest and passionate. All were in agreement that the divisiveness and anger we see within our country is pitting one group against another, whether based upon political ideology, race, religion, gender, sexual preference, age, economics, or a myriad of other labels. Some call this identity politics, but regardless of the term used, it is harmful to our nation.

Collectively, we acknowledged that there were many issues on which we each felt passionately and would never find agreement, but we made a conscious choice to focus on listening to each other with an open mind. While I don’t pretend to completely understand the feelings of fear and anxiety expressed by some participants, I did recognize that those feelings were entirely genuine and deeply rooted, and could not and should not be dismissed. By maintaining this openness and respect, we found there were many issues on which we could find common ground, common beliefs, and common goals. Although we may differ on the perceived paths to achieve these goals, it does not lessen the mutual desire to seek common-sense solutions.

We cannot rely entirely on politicians to solve all the problems of our nation, but rather must take some responsibility upon ourselves. Today the platforms of our two major political parties are so extreme and inflexible — in a stark example, Tom Perez, chairman of the DNC, recently made a statement demanding “ideological purity” — that we will be hard pressed to find the cooperation and collaboration needed to advance positive actions at the national level. But if we are willing to set aside our differences and work together in those areas in which we see eye to eye, we may achieve some successes to benefit our own community.

Rather than shouting each other down, which only ends the discussion and leaves everyone involved angry, hurt, and more certain of their righteousness than ever, sometimes we just need to sit quietly in a living room and listen.

We are the face of America, each one of us individually — and it’s only when we meet face to face that we will be able to put behind us the vitriol, the anger, the fear, and the intractability that divides us.

To explore this concept, or create your own forum for respectful and open discourse, check out https://livingroomconversations.org.

(Correction to my April 27 column: California is due to receive $96 billion from the federal government in 2016/2017, not $350 billion. My apologies for the error.)

Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Nevada City, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at terrymclaughlin2016@gmail.com.